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Is it a good time to be an indie dev?

Jason Della Rocca assesses the state of play for small creators, limited opportunity on mobile, and the evolution of subscription services

When we meet with Jason Della Rocca at this year's Megamigs, it is in the wake of a number of grim headlines about the business of gaming, one of the first such waves of negative financial news since the start of the pandemic.

Google had formally given up on Stadia, Microsoft had just announced hundreds of jobs cuts, and we were calling for calm in an editorial about the downward turn things had taken of late.

But much of the concern was focused on the larger end of the industry, the AAA market and the massive companies that make their business there. So when we speak with Della Rocca, the former executive director of the International Game Developers Association and co-founder of Execution Labs, we ask for an indie perspective on the industry, and whether he finds himself optimistic or pessimistic of late.

"Success is possible, but I think the chance of success is much lower than it used to be, just because of saturation and the way things go"

"I'm generally an optimistic person, and I think you make good decisions, do hard work, have talent, all that kind of stuff, and success can be had," Della Rocca says. "There's a lot of failure. There's many more games being made, many indies attempting to launch games, and a lot of them fail. But we're also seeing amazing successes coming out of nowhere… Success is possible, but I think the chance of success is much lower than it used to be, just because of saturation and the way things go."

Della Rocca says a lot of the work he does these days is about helping developers approach their business as an actual business, from selecting commercially viable genres to engaging community and influencers.

"A lot of developers don't take the time to do competitive analysis, market research, community engagement, streamer outreach and all that kind of stuff until far too late, or they don't bother at all," Della Rocca says. "But I think developers are realizing that if they want to make a career of it and build a viable business and be professional, it's a lot more work than they had hoped for when maybe they were just young and dreaming."

In recent years, there have been a spate of indie publishers setting up shop to meet the demands of such developers, operations that advertise themselves as letting developers worry about the development while they handle the rest of it, from marketing to social media management to platform relations to ports.

Della Rocca doesn't want to speak ill of those companies, but he points to a shift in the perceived value of developers self-publishing and "owning" their audience with as direct a relationship with the fans as possible.

"Even a publisher that has the fairest deal, the best of intent, and the hardest workers [is] still kind of getting in the way of [the creator-player] relationship..."

"We often see that as one of the multiplier effects on probability of success, when the creator is engaging with the audience directly, managing the Discord, has an active newsletter, active on social media, engaging influencers, all that kind of stuff," Della Rocca says.

"What we're seeing more and more is that a publisher intermediating that relationship doesn't always work. Not because the publisher is evil, not because the publisher isn't working hard, but they're doing the marketing. They aren't the artist, they aren't the designer, they aren't the storyteller. And I think even a publisher that has the fairest deal, the best of intent, and the hardest workers, they're still kind of getting in the way of that relationship, unintentionally so, but it's just the way that works.

"The fans want to be in contact with the designer, not with a junior marketing associate from publisher XYZ. No offense to that junior marketing associate. They're probably a perfectly nice person with good marketing skills, but they're not the designer, not the programmer, not the artist, not the creators."

Della Rocca says one emerging trend to address that concern is what he calls "publishing-as-a-service" businesses. They offer publisher-like services – QA, porting, localization, and so on – but the developer remains the publisher of the game, remaining up front and directly connected with the fans in question.

The mobile opportunity

Indies have found spaces to thrive on PC and on consoles, but the mobile market is another matter. Whereas it was once considered a friendlier market thanks to more permissive platform holder policies, low budgets, and the potential for massive breakout hits, Della Rocca says the market there for indies now is "almost nil."

There's an opportunity for a team of two or three people in the hypercasual market to make some money releasing quickly assembled prototypes and building on any that happen to stick, but Della Rocca says it's almost like gambling, and cautions that "the house always wins."

"It's so hard to build some random cube or bouncing balls thing that's actually going to hit and make money," he says. "You can do that, but I think it's really, really tough."

And that's the friendliest part of the mobile market in his eyes.

"The regular app store market as an indie? Oh man, it's next to impossible"

"The regular app store market as an indie? Oh man, it's next to impossible," Della Rocca says. "Even though it's mobile and you think, 'Oh, mobile is smaller and easier to make,' the complexity around the economy, design balancing, progression systems, retention mechanics… Never mind all the user acquisition and worrying about ad monetization and all that kind of stuff. Three kids, a programmer, artist, and designer? They know nothing about that."

One exception to all this is in the mobile premium market, or at least one specific part of it.

"Mobile premium out in the wild has zero viability," Della Rocca says. "Mobile premium if you're in Apple Arcade or Netflix? That's another story. They're walled gardens, but if you can get one of those rare Apple Arcade deals, that's usually a pretty good deal. They're quite generous in making sure your development costs are covered, etc."

However, there are still a couple downsides to that scheme. While the deals limit the potential downsides of a worst case scenario for the game, they also limit the upsides of a best case scenario.

"Even though there is some profit pool action, if you make the next Clash of Clans or Angry Birds, you don't get to really participate in that success because you've inherently been paid to produce a game and create that content," Della Rocca says.

On top of that, there's also the non-trivial issue that the companies making these premium games viable have to pick your project.

"It's a double-edged sword," Della Rocca says. "On the one hand, it allows my premium mobile game to find a home and actually live on a mobile device. But on the other hand, it means I'm at the mercy of the whims of the people controlling the [platform], and they have to let me in."

Della Rocca mentions that one developer he worked with had a game in the initial round of Apple Arcade games. It was a good deal that worked out for them, so they thought they would try it one more time.

"They offered a second game and Apple turned it down," Della Rocca said. "They had planned on that and had to scramble to recover from that."

The subscription service trend

That same situation is by no means limited to the mobile market, and Della Rocca is clearly uneasy with the idea of any developer planning to be wholly dependent on the good graces of a subscription service outfit to keep their business going.

"If you're like, 'I'm just going to wait for my next Game Pass deal' and they say, 'We don't want that one,' then it's like, oh crap, my whole business model was focused on that approach," he says.

While he won't hazard a guess as to whether subscriptions could lead to a Spotify-like scenario for developers where creators are paid insultingly little for their work, Della Rocca does expect the deals offered to developers to get worse as subscription programs establish themselves.

"The more you want to be in the subscription, the less they have to incentivize you to be there"

"The more you want to be in the subscription, the less they have to incentivize you to be there," he says.

It doesn't even have to be a subscription service. Della Rocca points to the Epic Game Store and its "intensely aggressive" pursuit of developers in the early days, offering "amazing" deals to creators to include their titles in the free games of the week giveaways. However, he says the deals have become less generous as Epic has built up momentum.

"That's natural for any platform," Della Rocca says. "At the beginning, you incentivize, you load it up, and that brings the install base. And when the install base is there, we're naturally motivated to be on the platform, so the incentives go away or diminish."

On top of that, he goes back to his earlier remarks about the importance of directly engaging with one's own fanbase and "owning" that relationship.

"Subscription models alter that as well in their own way, so I have concerns there a bit," Della Rocca says. "And I just have this concern about being on that treadmill, where as long as the master of the platform keeps saying yes, then I can keep running on that treadmill. But as soon as they say, 'no thanks,' then I'm thrown off the treadmill and then what do I do and where do I go? I have to scramble. So I never liked this idea about getting on a treadmill."

Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined GamesIndustry.biz in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.